A journalist researching the story of a real-life 19th-century spiritualist, Maggie Fox, may have to contend with the ghost of her old lover.
Living alone in a rambling old house in upstate New York, Helen West is mourning in almost Victorian fashion the death of her lover Jude. When she is asked to write a long biographical article on Maggie Fox, she accepts, since the subject of spiritualism, and the Fox sisters in particular, was a favorite of Jude's. At first appalled at Maggie's duplicity, she slowly begins to crave for herself a connection with the dead. The story flips between Helen's narrative and the life of Maggie Fox—a fascinating piece of history in itself. Farm children amusing themselves on a winter night, Maggie and Leah Fox created an international craze, and what some at the time termed a new religion. By dexterously cracking their toe joints to produce mysterious rappings, they claimed to speak with the dead, and soon people were willing to pay to hear those conversations. Under the guidance of her evil older sister, Maggie set up shop in New York, where she soon became rich and famous (her clients included Horace Greeley and Mary Todd Lincoln). But she was also a prisoner of Leah's domination and of the laudanum she was given to keep her in line. As Helen becomes more sympathetic to Maggie, strange doings make her wonder whether the ghost of Jude has come to her—a welcome apparition, although poorly timed: Helen is now attempting a new relationship after three lonely years mourning Jude, who, she discovers, was not the man he seemed.
Mackin (Dreams of Empire, 1996, etc.) offers a deft combination of historical fiction and ghost story, as well as a compelling meditation on the power of the past to alter the present.